It can be exhausting, admitted Russell Brand, being on all the time. Constantly looking for the laugh, thinking up witty comebacks, exuding rakish charm.
So last week, when the star of the new "Arthur" remake knew he had no audience to impress, he took the rare opportunity to taper his manic energy.
"If we were doing this interview on camera," he said, "then I would be looking for every single opportunity to say something funny to make you laugh," as he has in every late-night talk show interview he's given in the last month, in which he's bounced around delivering rapid-fire punch lines.
"It's difficult to say this without seeming self-involved, but really, primarily, what I care about is making people laugh. When it's my job, then I do feel pressure to perform — a professional duty. It can be exhausting. But I'm happy to be able to have quiet and intelligent conversation. In the past, I didn't have an off switch as much. But now, because I'm focused on work, and there are different kinds of dimensions to my life, I don't have that tendency."
Hiding out in the back room of an upscale Las Vegas restaurant may be an odd place to talk about calming down, but it was in service of that new focus on work. He had flown to Sin City for a few hours last week to stop by CinemaCon, the annual gathering of movie theater owners, where he was named "Comedy Star of the Year" and he made time to promote "Arthur," the remake of the 1981 Dudley Moore classic out Friday and his first leading role.
The 35-year-old, infamously a former drug and sex addict who now practices transcendental meditation, has already proved he has the ability to change his public persona. With "Arthur" — in which he takes on the role of the booze-loving playboy millionaire that earned the late Dudley Moore an Oscar nomination — he's out to show Hollywood that he has the range to play more than just the wild sideshow. (If you count animated films as part of his repertoire, he's already off to a good start. He's the voice of the teenage bunny at the center of "Hop," which exceeded box office expectations when it debuted last weekend to $37.5 million.)
It was just three years ago that American moviegoers were introduced to Brand, when he embodied an outlandish rock star named Aldous Snow in the comedy "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." His turn as an over-the-top, sex-crazed miscreant proved so memorable that the film's creators, including producer Judd Apatow, proposed a sequel of sorts that centered on Brand's Snow character, "Get Him to the Greek," which was released last summer.
Prior to those films, Brand was primarily known in his native England as a lewd stand-up comedian whose personal troubles were frequently splashed across the tabloids. Now eight years sober, it took him longer to kick the proclivity for sleeping around that led the English tabloid the Sun to name him "Shagger of the Year" three years in a row. After a stint in rehab at Pennsylvania's KeyStone sex addiction clinic — which he wrote about in his first memoir, 2007's "My Booky Wook" — Brand began living life on the straight-and-narrow. Last October, after a year of dating, he wed pop star Katy Perry at a lavish ceremony in India.
Still, his reputation often precedes him.
Warner Bros., which produced "Arthur," was particularly worried about Brand's past behavior informing filmgoers' view of the character, the actor said.
"The studio was very particular about wanting Arthur to be sweet and vulnerable. And I think that was because they thought that I am perceived as a sort of — because of the films I've done with Judd Apatow — kind of hedonistic and decadent and kind of wanton and maybe obnoxious," he said, sipping his new drink of choice, a diet Dr Pepper, which his bodyguard had retrieved for him.
Jason Winer, who directed "Arthur," acknowledged that Brand's real-world identity prompted some script changes. "In the original movie, Arthur picks up a hooker. And for what people know about Russell and what he brings to the role — would you believe he needs to pay for sex? We had to address those things," the filmmaker said.
How the protagonist handles his drinking problem also had to be tinkered with to reflect modern attitudes about alcoholism. (In the new film, Arthur attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, though it's generally played for laughs.)
"Arthur is the kind of drunk I think people want to be — he's fun." His own kind of drunk was far different, Brand said. "I was like a lunatic, smashing stuff all the time and self-harming and kicking and screaming and getting arrested. This film is very sweet and light — it's not, like, got room for rage or hatred or self-immolation," he said of the movie that he executive produced. "But I really liked playing a drunk. Because, I suppose, I have a huge propensity towards drinking and taking drugs. So even minor recollection of that proved seductive and alluring to me."
Earlier, his party animal character in the Apatow films had proved challenging for the actor, said "Sarah Marshall" and "Greek" director Nicholas Stoller.
"There was a lot of fake partying in 'Greek,' and I think it was a little hard for him to be constantly fake drinking and smashing fake beer bottles. He definitely would go back to his trailer and center himself with the meditation and yoga," Stoller said.
As the restaurant's chef emerged to present Brand — a vegetarian — a platter elaborately decorated with seared tofu and a variety of legumes, the comedian's quiet demeanor shifted.
"These are English peas? Oh, her majesty," he quipped, instantly livening up. "And you seared the tofu? This is remarkable. It's not often you get the opportunity to use the word smorgasbord, but this is one, literally."
After the chef retreated, Brand confided about his overt effort to appear gracious, "If I thought they thought we didn't appreciate the food, it would trouble me. Like, if I am rude to someone now — I've developed a conscience. Imagine that? Like a literal Jiminy Cricket in my head going, 'Oh, you shouldn't have done that, that was mean.' It's not just, 'That's the bloke out of "Sarah Marshall" and he was rude.' It's more I have this crushing awareness of humanity now."
He attributes much of that shift to practicing meditation, but also largely to his wife, Perry.
"I've said that being in love is the most mundane thing in the world and that's how I feel about it — it's an incredible, wonderful, cosmic and geometrically jarring feeling. But ultimately, it's like, 'Oh, are you all right? What's going on? What'd you do today?' It's just companionship between us, and that's what I really like about it, is how normal it is," he said. "I think that's what my life is lacking."
"Arthur" too is a step toward something as yet missing in his life: his bid to be taken seriously as a comedic leading man.
Though his booze-soaked character is recognizably wild and antic — and sports Brand's trademark untamed hair, he does show moments of subtlety and depth.
"It's really important to me. I've worked really, really hard — the promotion, the filming, being diligent and present. It has huge potential for me as an individual," he said. "But I'm also really accepting of what happens in the world. Because I kind of believe in God. I don't like to sound zealous or fundamentalist or anything. But no matter how well 'Arthur' does, the grim reaper will not relent."